Canada's Le Dain Commission: Vindicated at Last

Posted on October 19th, 2018 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , , .

Canada legalizationCanada's course to cannabis prohibition closely followed that in its southern neighbor. As in the United States, cannabis a century ago was widely available in tincture form as a medication before being banned in a campaign that blatantly harnessed racism and xenophobia. Yet now Canada is legalizing coast to coast, while the US federal government remains intransigent.

An early harbinger of Canada's enlightenment was the 1969 Le Dain Commission, which studied illegal drugs at the order of Ottawa, in response to then exploding use—especially of cannabis. The Le Dain Commission cut through the propaganda to recommend a common-sense policy—which Canada's government is actually now going beyond.

Anti-immigrant roots of Canadian prohibition
The Harrison Act of 1914, the first major anti-drug legislation in US, was passed on a wave of anti-Asian hysteria. In Canada, the connection was even more blatant.

On Sept. 7, 1907, a thousands-strong white mob of the Asiatic Exclusion League rampaged through Vancouver's Chinese and Japanese districts, trashing shops and throwing some immigrants in the harbor. "Not a Chinese window was missed," one newspaper reported.

Business owners demanded compensation, and the deputy labor minister was dispatched to investigate. This was none other than William Lyon Mackenzie King—later the prime minister who led Canada through World War II. King was scandalized to find that the claimants included (legal) opium merchants. Back in Ottawa he wrote a report on the opium menace—not failing to warn that it was catching on with white women and girls.

He followed up by drafting legislation. The Proprietary and Patent Medicine Act, effectively banning opium for all but restricted medical use, was passed in 1908 without debate. Morphine and cocaine were added to the law in 1911.

Marijuana’s turn came in the 1920s, which saw a unified anti-drug and anti-Asian campaign. University of Guelph historian Catherine Carstairs in her book Jailed for Possession, cites some of the propaganda of this ugly period. One commentary in the Vancouver Sun praised the RCMP for "bending their energies to rid our Canadian soil of the Oriental filth of the drug traffic."

Emily Murphy, the famous Canadian suffragette, wrote for Maclean's magazine of the "grave drug menace" posed by Asian immigrants plying "our children" with "poisoned lollypops."

In 1922 and 1923, the drug laws were stiffened, penalties beefed up. Provisions also allowed for summary deportation of foreigners found to have smuggled drugs. Carstairs counts 671 Chinese immigrants expelled under this measure over the next 10 years—most of them residents of many years. Hardly coincidentally, 1923 also saw passage of the Chinese Immigration Act—Canada's equivalent of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act in US. Apart from a very few students and merchants, Chinese were effectively banned from Canadian soil.

Also in that package of laws was a provision adding a new substance to the list of prohibited drugs: marijuana. This actually put Canada ahead of the US on the path to prohibition. While individual states were already outlawing cannabis by then, it would not be federally banned in the US until 1937.

As reporter Kate Allen wrote in a retrospective on this history that appeared in the Toronto Star in 2002, the inclusion of cannabis in the law seems to have been arbitrary—it was simply lumped in with opiates, even though it wasn't even associated with Asian immigrants. "There was no science used to justify the laws," Allen wrote, "just a mess of panic, racism and accident..."

But there was little cannabis use to crack down on, and annual convictions for marijuana over the next 20 years hovered between zero and 12.

This changed quickly and dramatically with the counter-culture irruption of the 1960s. As youth grew their hair long and grooved on the Beatles and homegrown Canadian talent like the Guess Who, cannabis use suddenly exploded on college campuses and in hippie enclaves from Vancouver to Halifax. Conservatives were of course aghast, marijuana busts suddenly soared, and a new cultural panic had arrived.

Le Dain speaks truth to power
On May 29, 1969, Canada’s Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appointed the Royal Commission on the Non-medical Use of Drugs to study the question. It was informally named for its chair, Gerald Le Dain, then dean of Osgoode Hall, a Toronto law school, and later a Supreme Court justice.

Looking at alcohol, LSD, opiates and barbiturates as well as cannabis, the Le Dain Commission convened public hearings and heard testimony from thousands of people across Canada. Most famously. among those contributing comments were John Lennon and Yoko Ono, after their notorious Montreal "Bed-In for Peace."

"This is the opportunity for Canada to lead the world," the Beatle testified three days before Christmas 1969.

The 320-page report was released in April 1970, later to be hailed by the Osgood Hall alumni journal as "one of the most politically-explosive documents ever put before the government." It was formally published in 1972.

On cannabis, the report found that "the controversy surrounding this drug has reached epidemic proportions." Much of the scholarship was "ill-documented and ambiguous, emotion-laden and incredibly biased... The resulting confusion is exemplified by current legislation in many parts of the world, including Canada and the United States, which classifies cannabis with the opiate narcotics, even though these drugs are pharmacologically different."

The report noted a vicious cycle, where restrictions on research into cannabis lead to a dearth of good information—a "rather sorry state of affairs."

Based on the available evidence, the report found: "Cannabis has little acute physiological toxicity—sleep is the usual somatic consequence of over-dose. No deaths due directly to smoking or eating of cannabis have been documented and no reliable information exists regarding the lethal dose in humans."

It added: "Some observers have suggested that chronic smoking of cannabis might produce carcinogenic effects similar to those now attributed to the smoking of tobacco, although no evidence exists to support this view at this time." Forty-eight years later, there is still no such evidence.

The report found the cannabis penalties to be "grossly excessive." It called for decriminalizing personal possession and drastically reducing the penalties for trafficking. Le Dain recommended a $100 fine for possession of any drugs. And this as US President Nixon was escalating his "war on drugs."

The report also noted the similar findings of previous such official studies: the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report, commissioned by Britain in 1894; the Panama Canal Zone Military Investigations, carried out by the US Army from1916 to 1929; the 1944 LaGuardia Committee Report in New York City; and the Baroness Wootton Report, again commissioned by Britain in 1968. All these called for a more tolerant and lenient approach to cannabis.

Ironically, this same conclusion would be drawn in 1972 by the US National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse—chaired by former Pennsylvania governor Raymond P. Shafer. The Shafer Commission would be thoroughly ignored by the man who ordered it: Richard Nixon.

Posthumous vindication
While Canada did not decriminalize, the Le Dain findings would be periodically revisited. In 2002, a Senate study, "Cannabis: Report of the Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs," stated: "The [Le Dain] Commission concluded that the criminalization of cannabis had no scientific basis. We confirm this conclusion and add that continued criminalization of cannabis remains unjustified based on scientific data on the danger it poses."

The Senate report termed the cannabis laws "a solution without a problem."

As reporter Allen noted in the Star in 2002, in the 40 years after the Le Dain report was released, Canadian police forces recorded at least two million cannabis-related violations.

Gerald Le Dain died in 2007, before his work began to see fruit in public policy—apart from a national medical marijuana program, unveiled in 2001.

But with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—the son of Pierre—now shepherding the Canadian Cannabis Act into law, there is a sense that the courageous truth-telling jurist is winning his posthumous vindication.

This story first ran Oct. 4 on Freedom Leaf.

Photo: John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Pierre Trudeau, via Freedom Leaf

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